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Aid Workers Face Death Penalty in Afghanistan - 2001-09-05

The chief justice of Afghanistan's ruling Islamic Taleban movement says he does not rule out the death penalty for eight foreign aid workers being tried on charges of preaching Christianity. Judges and Islamic scholars have completed their second day of deliberations in the case.

Taleban Chief Justice Noor Mohammad Saqib says the trial in the Afghan capital, Kabul is continuing and going very fast. He says the Western aid workers will be punished according to the laws they have broken. The Afghan Islamic Press agency quotes him as saying the punishment would fit the alleged crime and the death penalty is an option.

Four Germans, two Americans and two Australians from the German-based aid agency Shelter Now are on trial. The proceeding is closed to the public and no one has said how long it could last. The Taleban arrested the foreigners along with 16 of their Afghan colleagues nearly a month ago for allegedly trying to convert Muslims.

The trial process remains unclear under the Islamic Taleban. Its officials have not fully explained the charges and likely punishment for the Western aid workers. Existing Taleban laws call for the death penalty of an Afghan Muslim converts to any other religion. The Taleban says the local detainees will be tried separately but it is not known when that will happen.

Taleban Chief Justice Saqib promises the foreigners will receive a fair trial and will be allowed to defend themselves. He says even though it is not common practice in Afghan courts, the judges will have no objection if the accused want to use non-Muslim foreign lawyers.

Meanwhile, three diplomats from Germany, the United States and Australia arrived uninvited at the court on Wednesday to try to meet the chief justice and clarify the legal process, but they were turned away. The diplomats were told their presence will be requested when it is deemed necessary. Australian representative Alastar Adams told reporters they want to know how the Taleban plans to proceed but they have been kept completely in the dark about the trial.

The Taleban says it has strong evidence that the workers of Shelter Now were involved in preaching Christianity but has no proof any conversions were actually made. The aid agency denies the charges, saying its staff are told not to proselytise.